In 2009, at the age of 8, McClain Hermes was having lunch at school in Georgia when everything went black. She lost all vision in her right eye and was left with limited sight in the left, the result of Wagner syndrome. Her father, Matt, was working in real estate as the economy collapsed. Shortly thereafter he quit selling homes. Her family lost everything.

“It was a dark time for all of us,” she said with a confident smile during a July speech at Fusion 2019, a learning and technology conference.

Swimming was her passion. And now, with four surgeries in her rearview mirror, Hermes has a dream of winning a Paralympic medal in swimming and helping people. Along with her father, she started a charity — Shoes for the Souls — that has delivered 27,000 pairs of shoes to the Atlanta Mission, an organization dedicated to ending homelessness. In doing so, they’ve given back to the community that supported them during their time of need.

In September, Hermes began her freshman year at Loyola as a member of the swimming team. She competes primarily in freestyle events for the Greyhounds, whose season began in October.

“She’s all about perseverance and hard work,” Loyola swimming coach Brian Loeffler said. “She doesn’t take anything for granted. It’s not easy for her to navigate the campus [with] all of her responsibilities.”

Loeffler, who has been involved in Paralympic swimming since 2008, followed Hermes’ career through high school. Junior Stephen Machak, a paraplegic, is on Loeffler’s Loyola squad as well.

“Each one is unique,” Loeffler said of swimmers with disabilities. “It’s not uncommon.”

Hermes never let not being able to see stand in the way of her goals. When she had trouble finding the wall in the pool after losing her sight, her coach in Atlanta made a “tapper” to signal that it was time to make the turn. Her coach would tap her on the head to indicate she was approaching the wall.

“At first we used a broom stick with a tennis ball,” Hermes said. “We adapted it over the years as I got taller and faster. We used a fishing pole and a window washer.”

At 15, she became the youngest U.S. athlete to compete in any sport at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. In March 2019, she broke the American record in the 500 freestyle in the S11 classification for visually impaired swimmers. She has competed in freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke events in international competition, according to the Team USA website.

Hermes said she owns more than 20 American records, but she isn’t sure about the exact number. She has her sights on a Paralympic medal.

“The Tokyo Paralympics in 2020,” she said. “That’s the big dream — winning a medal. We have the nationals in December and the Olympic trials in June.”

Hermes relies on her guide dog, Blake, to get her to and from campus.

“The pool’s not on campus — so he gets me there,” she said. “He knows when it’s time to do homework. He takes me to my friend’s room.”

Hermes has big goals outside of the swimming pool, too. She plans to major in communications.

“I enjoy public speaking and writing,” she said. “I want to write a book one day.”

Hermes obtained her high school degree from Gwinnett Online Campus. Even now that she’s in college, she often works weeks ahead of the syllabus.

“College is not very different from high school,” she said. “I can get everything done ahead of time.”

Her message to others facing adversity is full of hope.

“When I was going blind, I continued to swim,” she said. “Follow your dreams.”

Photo Credits: Craig Chase/Loyola Athletic Communications and Courtesy of McClain Hermes

Issue 260: December 2019 / January 2020  

Originally published Dec. 18, 2019